His father had Martin Luther King Jr. Bill Wachtel has Fernando Ferrer.
Mr. Wachtel, a low-profile lawyer and the son of King confidant Harry Wachtel has quietly become Mr. Ferrer’s key patron as the former Bronx borough president considers challenging Mayor Bloomberg next year.
After Mr. Ferrer’s defeat in the 2001 Democratic Mayoral campaign, Mr. Wachtel recruited him to run an organization, the Drum Major Institute, which his father founded. Now a substantial part of Mr. Ferrer’s salary comes out of Mr. Wachtel’s pocket, and he works out of the law office of Wachtel and Masyr. Mr. Wachtel is also Mr. Ferrer’s biggest political fund-raiser, and has been so aggressive that three administrative workers at his law firm and his two college-age sons each contributed $4,950-the highest amount allowed under city campaign-finance regulations.
To Mr. Wachtel’s friends, he’s an energetic, creative enthusiast who put a lucrative legal career on the back burner to follow in his father’s footsteps. To his critics, notably several former staffers on Carl McCall’s failed Gubernatorial campaign in 2002, he’s an overeager newcomer looking for entrée into the big time.
Either way, Mr. Wachtel appears likely to play a leading role in the Ferrer campaign next year if the Bronx Democrat decides to challenge Mr. Bloomberg.
It’s a headfirst leap into politics for the wiry, dark-haired lawyer, a man who hardly knew Mr. Ferrer before 2001. Mr. Wachtel, 49, says his support for Mr. Ferrer and for the work of the Drum Major Institute fills a need he’s felt since his father died in 1997.
“As he was dying, he begged me to do something purposeful with my life-to give back, if you will,” said Mr. Wachtel, who still gets tearful looking at a photograph of his father beside King. “I found myself searching for ways in which to do it.”
His father was a corporate lawyer whose conversion to the civil-rights cause is one of the great road-to-Damascus stories of the movement. As told by Taylor Branch in his history of the early civil-rights movement, Parting the Waters , Harry Wachtel was vice chairman of a company that owned chain stores-and segregated lunch counters-throughout the South. He met King in 1962 and, plagued by his conscience, offered to quit his job in solidarity. Instead, King told the 44-year-old Mr. Wachtel that he could help the civil-rights movement more by staying where he was.
“Wachtel knew how to get high government officials on the phone and how to touch corporate officers for five-figure donations,” Mr. Branch wrote. “He was big time.”
Wachtel helped finance the Southern Christian Leadership Council and offered legal advice to King. He became close enough to the civil-rights leader that he and his wife were the only white people to travel to Stockholm with King to accept his Nobel Peace Prize.
“I grew up in the civil-rights movement,” his son told The Observer in a telephone interview from his family home on Long Island. He was looking, he said, at a photograph of King riding Mr. Wachtel’s childhood bicycle. Today, he counts civil-rights leader Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III-both of whom are board members of the Drum Major Institute-as friends.
Bill Wachtel, like his father, has spent most of his legal career in private practice. But he’s always maintained links to the world of politics. At Columbia Law School, he befriended one of his professors, Bernard Nussbaum, who would become Bill Clinton’s White House counsel. His partner, Jesse Masyr, a real-estate lobbyist who represents several big-box stores, was a top aide to former City Council President Andrew Stein, and Mr. Wachtel counts another old-time city power broker, Mr. Stein’s father Jerry Finkelstein, among his mentors.
Mr. Finkelstein introduced him to Mr. McCall as the then comptroller began planning his race for Governor. Mr. Wachtel was in the process of reviving his father’s Drum Major Foundation-since renamed the Drum Major Institute-and had been an active supporter of former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. Soon he was part of Mr. McCall’s inner circle, encouraging him to run for Governor and advising him on hiring staff and consultants.
Mr. Wachtel was also among Mr. McCall’s biggest donors, giving $22,000 to the campaign.
But to the campaign’s staff, Mr. Wachtel was the “hat king”-a derisive reference to the blue “McCall” baseball caps and white shirts that he distributed during the campaign. Several former staff members who spoke to The Observer on the condition that their names not be used said the hat episode reflected Mr. Wachtel’s eagerness, as well as his inexperience. The campaign gear was the product of a political apparel company that Mr. Wachtel had started, but which never got off the ground.
While the free caps were well-intentioned, they weren’t union-made-a sore point with a campaign dependent on union support. Staffers busied themselves ripping out the tags.
“We had to wear the sweatshirts around the campaign to make [Mr. Wachtel] feel better, but you couldn’t wear them outside,” said one former staffer.
More broadly, the staffers never trusted the lawyer who had Mr. McCall’s ear and resented his dropping in with “wacky” suggestions for fund-raising and campaigning, a senior official said.
Mr. Wachtel’s friend, Mr. Nussbaum, dismissed the complaints as typical.
“Campaign staffs always say that about people on the outside,” said Mr. Nussbaum, now at the firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz. “He’s a smart guy, and he’s an experienced guy.”
Mr. McCall didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
As the McCall campaign limped along, crippled from the start by internal infighting and distrust that went well beyond Mr. Wachtel, the lawyer also was growing interested in Mr. Ferrer, who was out of office after having lost the 2001 Democratic Mayoral primary to Mark Green. Mr. Wachtel had contributed $3,250 to Mr. Ferrer’s campaign without ever meeting the candidate one-on-one, both men said. After Mr. Ferrer lost a bitter runoff for the Mayoral nomination, Mr. Wachtel threw himself behind Mr. Green, putting $3,500 on his credit card just five days before the general election.
But, Mr. Wachtel said, he was most moved by Mr. Ferrer’s handling of his runoff defeat and the bitter infighting among Democrats in the days that followed. Mr. Green’s supporters charged that Mr. Ferrer ran a racially charged campaign; Mr. Ferrer’s supporters called the last-minute, anonymous circulation of a New York Post cartoon racist. Mr. Ferrer endorsed Mr. Green, but his allies in the Bronx sat on their hands on Election Day, permitting-Mr. Green’s partisans still say bitterly-Mr. Bloomberg to become Mayor.
“I saw the way in which Freddy lost, and what struck me is that he lost in such an extraordinarily principled manner,” said Mr. Wachtel, adding that he was particularly struck by the “Two Cities” theme of Mr. Ferrer’s campaign, which some criticized as divisive. “I felt so troubled that people were regarding him as having played a race card by suggesting that indeed there were the haves and have-nots.”
They Meet at Last
Soon after the election, Mr. Wachtel asked Mr. McCall to introduce him to the defeated, now-unemployed Democrat. Mr. Ferrer soon had himself a job offer with the Drum Major Institute.
“I was considering doing a lot of different things in my life-probably lot more lucrative than this,” said Mr. Ferrer, who earns $150,000 a year as president of the Drum Major Institute. “But I valued this association with an institution that had a civil-rights heritage.”
Mr. Wachtel, for his part, saw great potential in Mr. Ferrer.
“There is a lamentable void of real leadership in the minority community,” he said. “I don’t think Freddy is in any way, shape, or form thinking that he’s the next Dr. King-I don’t think anybody would be so presumptuous. But if we had a dynamic Mayor who happened to be a minority, could that be a pedestal from which someone can continue to rise?”
Mr. Ferrer brought new visibility to the Drum Major Institute, and through the institute he made new friends. The powerful head of the Service Employees International Union Local 1199, Dennis Rivera, hosted former President Bill Clinton and Ambassador Young at a fund-raiser that celebrated Mr. Ferrer’s arrival at the institute.
Under Mr. Ferrer’s leadership, the Drum Major Institute has commissioned respected academics to study New York’s changing demographics, taken out public-service announcements encouraging people to vote and convened a wonky conference on voting rights for non-citizens.
It’s also performed some functions that tie in more closely to Mr. Ferrer’s political career, notably hiring the company that did the polling for Mr. Ferrer’s Mayoral race, the Global Strategy Group, to study New Yorkers’ feelings about their economic security.
Meanwhile, Mr. Wachtel has thrown himself into political fund-raising like never before. Mr. Ferrer opened his fund-raising committee last November, and immediately faced high expectations to demonstrate that he could mount a serious campaign. He raised a lot of money-fast-and more of it from Mr. Wachtel than from any other intermediary.
Contributors included Mr. Wachtel’s law partners and in-laws (his wife is a member of the family that owns Zabar’s). Among those who contributed the maximum amount, $4,950, were several women described in public filings as an “administrator,” an “executive assistant” and an “administrative assistant” at Wachtel and Masyr, and two of Mr. Wachtel’s sons, age 21 and 19. The donations have raised eyebrows, largely because those sums are usually given by people whose incomes are well into the six figures, or who have independent means.
“Contributions from low-level employees or students could potentially raise red flags for our auditors,” said a spokeswoman for the Campaign Finance Board, Molly Watkins, who declined to comment on the specific contributions.
Two of the women did not return calls seeking comment. A third, Mr. Wachtel’s longtime assistant Helen Petulla, said: “All I can say is that Freddy’s a great guy, and I hope he becomes Mayor.” She then said she would call back, and didn’t.
Mr. Wachtel said his sons have their own checking accounts, from which they wrote the checks. Asked whether he had reimbursed any of the donors, Mr. Wachtel said: “Don’t be ridiculous.”